President Trump says America is turning the corner on the coronavirus and will defeat it “very easily” with a vaccine but public health experts are worried about a cold-weather spike in the meantime, posing a key test of whether Americans can buckle down for a few more months.
Public health experts are concerned the coronavirus could surge after Election Day due to the cooler weather conditions, along with the higher risks associated with school openings and people gathering indoors to avoid the chill outside.
Making matters worse, any spike would coincide with flu season, potentially creating confusion in the emergency rooms that need to distinguish between the diseases. Officials are pleading with the public to get their flu shots and maintain COVID-19 precautions to avoid the type of chaos that dominated last spring.
Predicting how the new coronavirus will behave has been notoriously difficult, to the point tha experts say people should be prepared for any scenario.
“One has to simply say, ‘We really don’t know,’” said Barry Bloom, a research professor of public health and former dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Our epidemiological people are anticipating that there will be a flare in cases in the fall as temperatures go down, as people can’t dine outside and as we spend more time in groups indoors — and that will be contemporaneous with flu season.”
Part of the challenge in preventing flare-ups is that it’s hard for the public to envision the exponential growth of cases at the start of a surge, the professor said. Deaths from case surges don’t occur until a few weeks down the road.
“Getting an intuition of what’s going to happen — without seeing dreadful things happen — is what makes this epidemic so challenging,” Mr. Bloom said.
Pennsylvania officials say they are tracking the percentage of tests that come back positive to make sure they’re on the right track. They’re shooting for a positivity rate below 5% in each county.
While the state’s rate is 4.2% this week, they do have “a number of counties with concerning numbers,” state health department spokesman Nate Wardle said.
“If we do not take actions to prevent the spread of the virus, we will see large outbreaks in our schools, our colleges, and then as we move into flu season, that could be concerning for our health system,” Mr. Bloom said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning about the potential difficulties of combatting influenza and COVID-19 at the same time. Director Robert Redfield said it’s “more important than ever” to get a flu shot.
“COVID-19 and flu activity occurring at the same time could place a tremendous burden on the health care system and result in many illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Dr. Redfield said. “However, we could also have an extremely mild flu season. We have seen evidence that mitigation steps for COVID-19 — like face masks, social distancing, and handwashing — have likely helped to prevent the spread of flu in some other countries. I am confident that Americans will continue to take mitigation steps for COVID-19 seriously.”
New York, the hardest-hit state earlier this year, recently told hospitals to devise plans for potential surges and demand for personal protective equipment as they prepare for the fall.
“We urge New Yorkers of all ages to remain vigilant and do their part to prevent the spread of this virus, while also getting a flu shot to protect themselves against the flu and protect the health care system from getting overwhelmed,” state Department of Health spokeswoman Jill Montag said. “The Department of Health has also championed emergency regulations related to surge and flex and PPE to address critical needs in healthcare facilities, now and in anticipation of a second wave.”
Cooler weather might be a factor in any COVID-19 spike. Respiratory diseases tend to circulate more during colder, drier months because infectious droplets linger in the air for longer. The summer months didn’t slash transmission as hoped, though scientists say that’s likely because so many people were susceptible to the virus, which was first discovered in humans in China in December.
Spikes may occur around by mid-October in places where the virus spread widely this year and is still lurking, according to Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“It will likely rise again due to sporting events, for example [the Florida State University] football game in Tallahassee this weekend, one of the most endemic areas of the country,” he said, referring to a limited-capacity game in which students were photographed crowding together without masks.
He pointed to school and college openings, generally, as risk factors and said indoor events will drive transmission.
President Trump over the weekend held his first indoor campaign rally since late June.
Campaign officials said each attendee in Nevada received a temperature check, a mask they were encouraged to wear and access to hand sanitizer, though Democrats scolded the president for not heeding scientists who say gathering indoors is more dangerous than being outdoors, where the fresh air allows for the unlimited dilution of virus particles.
Mr. Trump used the rally to highlight U.S. progress in fighting the coronavirus, which has killed over 194,000 people across the country.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases is at about 35,000 per day, down from a peak of about 66,000 in mid-July but higher than the 22,000 recorded in early June, according to a New York Times tracker.
Mr. Trump has cited the drop and the declining share of Americans who are dying from the disease, as efforts to shield the vulnerable and improvements in treatment pay off. He says a vaccine, which could be approved by the end of the year, will finish the job.
“We’ll be ready before the end of the year and we will very easily defeat the China virus. That’s what’s happening and we’re already making that turn,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re making that round beautiful last turn, but it should have never happened. China should have never let that happen.”
Capitol Hill Democrats on Monday said they’re worried the administration is so attuned to Mr. Trump’s electoral prospects it is revising scientific reports to fit his narrative.
Democrats on the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus launched a probe after news reports said senior health officials tried to tweak the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) on the virus.
The lawmakers want to know if the reported activity is still going on “and the steps that Congress may need to take to stop it before more Americans die needlessly.”
The Department of Health and Human Services said it will respond to Congress, while one of its top spokesmen, Michael Caputo, said the interactions between the public affairs office and CDC were part of a regular scientific review by scientific adviser Paul Alexander.
“Dr. Paul Alexander is an Oxford-educated epidemiologist and a methodologist specializing in analyzing the work of other scientists. Dr. Alexander advises me on pandemic policy and he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists. Like all scientists, his advice is heard and taken or rejected by his peers,” Mr. Caputo said. “Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic — not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.”
House Republicans, meanwhile, asked the administration to brief them on preparations for dealing with the coronavirus and flu in the coming months.
“We share your concerns about the unprecedented convergence of two highly contagious respiratory viruses that can cause life-threatening illness and death. Experts have noted that, in the upcoming influenza season, there could potentially be 100 million cases of influenza-like symptoms that could overwhelm current testing capacity,” Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and other top members of the Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to CDC Director Redfield. “Health experts also note ‘the stress on hospitals will be greatest if the COVID-19 and influenza epidemics overlap and peak around the same time.’”
The lawmakers asked Dr. Redfield to brief them on efforts to protect people from the flu — especially those who usually get the seasonal shot at the office but are working at home — and the status of testing technology that can check for the coronavirus and flu at the same time.